Elizabeth (by Penelope Volkofsky)

Preface to Elizabeth

A young art teacher alights from a train in western NSW in a floral dress and long white gloves. She has come to find her man in the outback. They marry and have four sons. She battles a spinal disease and becomes quadriplegic.

For five years she is confined to a wheelchair as a mostly silent mum on our sheep station. She loves it when we brush her hair. I usually see it as a chore but sometimes I catch myself looking at those lustrous black locks and want to run my fingers through them.

Our homestead is planted on a purple ironstone ridge. We are in the heart of forty-six thousand acres of box trees, hop bush and mulga scrub near a tiny village called Byrock. To the west is a small mountain peak. Long droughts scorch the earth into powder. When good seasons come the land is a waving blanket of corkscrew grass.

As a young boy, a favourite summer thing is to lie in bed at night and listen to the wind in the leaves of an old box tree outside my bedroom. A favourite winter ritual is to get up at dawn, walk across the frosty grass of our back yard and through the orchard of orange trees to our back fence where I watch the sun rise and pray for mum. The prayers grow, and I find myself praying for all of us.

I’m unable to look at mum’s face anymore—the verdict is too obvious. I look at her fingers instead. In them I imagine healing colour and life spreading back up into her face. But they’re only swollen. She dies in the Bourke Hospital in my first year of high school.

This woman had a sweet defiance. In her slow, deliberate way, she spoke to us often about faith, hope and love. Like the beautiful, wild and frightening world around her, she became a treasure.


Thank you for a home
Where there was soft powdery red dust
And a mountain peak for the sunset at dusk.

A cool summer
With a bedroom near a box tree
And the moonlight watching over me.

The silver music
Of box leaves dancing as they will
Under the stars in the summer while I am lying still.

But now a deep purple chill
Over an ironstone ridge horizon
Brings a new day with new surprises.

A huge red sun blazes and burns
Defiant in brilliant blue
Singing the hopes and dreams of the mother you gave me to.

But that purple ridge of earth
Now wears her silver coat of ice
Of shimmering corkscrew grass.

For this is a frozen season
With the crunch of ice under my feet
As I walk through a dark green grove of orange trees.

The sun sets.
A cold wind blows
Even the stars in heaven seem to know.

That the mother you gave me is frozen too
In a wheelchair of despair
And I am brushing her shiny black hair.

I hope to rescue her with hope and hope and prayer
Look! … I’m sure
The ice in her fingers is starting to thaw.

But no! … she rescued me
Just like the soft powdery red dust
And the mountain peak for the sunsets at dusk.

She kept my sanity
When the world was a very dark night
Like those silvery dancing leaves
Of the old box tree in the moonlight.

She blazed and burned
Sweet defiance in brilliant blue
This mother you gave me to.

Her golden beams
Over a purple ridge shot past
And found me at last.

Your flower
That only grows in the dungeon of despair
She found me while I was brushing her hair.

(Peter Volkofsky)